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Bashing Aurélie Filippetti, Stopping Time With Gilles Jacob, and the Borromean Knot of J.-M. Colombani

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Bashing may be the latest form of politics in France, as it has been for some time in the United States. Yesterday, François Hollande. The day before yesterday, Nicolas Sarkozy. Today, Aurélie Filippetti, who, in a few short weeks has somehow become "one-of-the-worst-culture-ministers-of-recent-decades." Coming from predecessors who themselves are facing a reckoning, this is an amusing reproach. From political adversaries who have found, or think they have found, the weak link in an administration they have always viewed as illegitimate, it hardly registers. But when orchestrated by a press whose concern should be to analyze what has been accomplished in light of what was promised, to weigh ministerial efforts in the light of an unprecedented cut in budget resources, this game of political massacre, this herd-like, argument-free litany of charges, this practice of assuming thoughtful and knowing expressions while repeating in a loop that Filippetti has been "disappointing" -- these are a bit surprising and perhaps even worrisome. I will take the precaution of reserving judgment until the results are in. In the meantime I will recall, at random, a television appearance about 10 years back by the future minister of culture, then a young novelist, who deposited at the feet of her astonished host (Guillaume Durand) the cadaver of the working class (Les Derniers Jours de la Classe ouvrière, Stock, 2003), a fine story of republican meritocracy set against the background of what her elder, Daniel Rondeau had called the sorrow of Lorraine in his book about the working class in Lorraine in the decades before 1914 (Chagrin lorrain, Seuil, 1979). I could also cite a meeting on Darfur in 2007 at which Filippetti and I schooled a certain Socialist candidate who was wondering whether it was appropriate to offer postcolonial Sudan lessons in democracy and freedom. How many Socialist party leaders do we have today who can count all the way to three: fidelity, one, to the anticolonial tradition; equally strong adherence, two, to our antitotalitarian heritage, and a firm grounding, three, in the pro-Dreyfus stance from which it all began.

For Gilles Jacob, who is approaching 40 years at the helm of the world's greatest film festival, the closing ceremonies have begun. Because Jacob is also a writer, those ceremonies have taken the form of an intriguing book, both dense and terse, crackling and veiled, wholly compelling though lacking any discernible center. Les pas perdus (Flammarion 2013) resembles an exercise in memory (in the manner of Georges Perec's Je me souviens) set within an experience of time that also has its precedents (Proustian synaesthesia, the frozen time of Claude Mauriac's Le Temps immobile, among others). If you want to know what the world looked like when the women who introduced television programs got fired if they showed a knee on the air, when France-Soir was France's leading daily, when you were greeted at the barbershop with the question, "Are you here for your hair or your beard?", when, if you missed a film, you could not rely on streaming or file-sharing but had to wait for it to come back to the Cinémathèque or your neighborhood film club; if you know only second-hand a world of letters over which reigned an out-of-uniform hussar by the name of François Nourissier, where a certain Bertrand Poirot-Delpech, reviewing books in Le Monde, embodied the promise of a new era, and where one read authors by the names of Mirbeau, Romain Rolland, and Mazo de la Roche; and especially if you want to know why this world in which children played with hoops and the Gare Montparnasse still housed the old Méliès shop is the same as the world of Wikipedia, PCs, and a lover of literature who signs his tweets "jajacobbi," then read this bestiary whose title, literally "vanished steps," echoes Proust's lost time. An enigmatic epilogue reminds us why one is always well-advised to be the first to tell one's story.

This is also the approach, a generation later, of another major actor from a world that may or may not be doomed. Jean-Marie Colombani's Un Monde à part (Plon 2013) recounts one of the strangest tales in the recent history of the press. Who, Colombani asks, wanted to kill off Le Monde at the dawn of the new millennium, when Colombani was in charge of France's newspaper of record? Whose interests was it offending? From what spring bubbled the hate that an unbroken line of French presidents felt for the paper? Why the desire to bring to heel a paper born at the baptismal font of the Resistance (or perhaps I should say reborn, since it had even older roots in the less glorious episode of the École des Cadres d'Uriage, the academy that trained officials for the Vichy government)? How did the independent Le Monde become the obsession of a bunch of conspirators that included a latter-day Fouché (Edwy Plenel), a band of externally funded "investigators," and a foreign minister (Dominique de Villepin) who was the vapid reincarnation of Talleyrand, whom Napoleon, suspecting treachery, called "shit in a silk stocking"? Colombani's book gives us his version of that episode, which already belongs to history. But he deserves credit for telling his tale through the prism of the real-life characters who acted out the story. Three individuals occupy center stage. The author, of course, accompanied by two men who were his allies at the time, Edwy Plenel and Alain Minc. Their unlikely pact was like one of those Borromean knots that, as they all should have known from Lacan, cannot be cut at any point without the whole thing falling immediately to pieces. Passions. Betrayals. Mores examined. The dreams of each member of the gang probed. As readers, we stand, like Balzac, before a human comedy as it is woven thread by thread. Unless, perhaps, the book is really a modern education -- a political rather than a sentimental education -- the lessons of which we all should absorb so that we will not have to say, one day, "That Le Monde was the best thing we had."

Translated by Steven B. Kennedy